Write-offs refuse to stand down

Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Of the many things that distinguish professional athletes from us mere mortals is their ability to live in an alternative reality.

For almost every player who has “made it”, there is a first team coach or talent scout out there scratching their head over how said player reached the pros when they didn’t appear to have what it takes.

Too often, one gets the impression that the only reason some players even lace up their boots is to prove people wrong because somebody once told them they were too small, too clumsy or just plain didn’t have “it”.

There has been a fair bit of that in Super Rugby this season, where players we were happy to write off last year just refuse to stay in their designated lanes or go away. Here are five of the most stubborn bastards doing the rounds in franchise rugby at the moment.

Elton Jantjies (Lions)
Jantjies has been the premier South African flyhalf for the last two seasons, yet he has finished none of them as the incumbent at Springbok level. You could write a thesis on the things that are supposedly wrong with him (“no BMT, can’t defend, too cocky, has an unfinished hairstyle and too much grease on said incomplete hairstyle… ”).

An indirect consequence of that mistrust has been our seduction by the gifts of every emerging young flyhalf – think Handre Pollard, Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse. Yet Jantjies has consistently improved an aspect of his play each year (tactical kicking this season) and emerged on the winning side in the last 20 SA derbies.

Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks)
When he first hit the scene as a 19-year-old inside centre measuring 1.92m and 102kg, Esterhuizen looked like a flanker, played like a flanker and talked like a flanker. That he had the unpleasant knack of tip-tackling opponents and an aversion to passing only solidified the unfavourable first impression.

Up until this season, he seemed to be one of those SA Under-20 talents which would never kick on because he persisted in being, to put it kindly, a blunt object in a thinking man’s position. Now 1.94m and a whopping 110kg, Esterhuizen is forcing us to reopen the box we’ve always put him in with performances that have him running clever lines, passing and, wait for it, offloading in the tackle.

Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira (Sharks)
Until injury struck late last year, watching Mtawarira’s 2017 season felt like being witness to an ageing pro’s farewell tour. The flame-haired Steven Kitshoff was patiently waiting for the venerable loosehead prop to get his 100th Springbok cap and take over this year.

But injury struck and the Beast finished the year stuck in the nervous 90s (98 caps), and his response has been nothing short of remarkable. At 32 he is playing with the enthusiasm of a teenager, his workrate in attack and defence is, well, beast mode. Good luck taking that number one jersey off him.

Ruan Botha (Sharks)
For someone who was part of the SA Under-20 side that won the country’s last junior world championship, Botha doesn’t get the same love as teammates Kitshoff, Pollard or Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Having started out at the Lions, moved to Western Province and then the Sharks, the 26-year-old Sharks captain has flown largely under the radar in a career which has seen the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Du Toit, Franco Mostert, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman block his path to recognition. But he has stuck to his task manfully, leading the Sharks by example and being an absolute pain in the backside for the opposition as a lock who can play both four and five and contest in the lineout.

Raymond Rhule (Stormers)
About a year ago I asked a Crusaders assistant coach what he thought of the winger. “A flat track bully, mate, great going forward, but hopeless going backwards…”

In a country in which we hang on to every Kiwi’s rugby word, few statements could have been more damning. The sadder thing was, it was true (Rhule missed something like 33 tackles in Super Rugby alone last year). Of the many embarrassing things you can be accused of in rugby, a game whose main currency is courage, not being able to tackle is the worst.

Having moved to the Stormers this year, Rhule’s attack – especially that pirouette and offload in the tackle – has gone up a notch. The praiseworthy thing is he hasn’t disappeared in defence and he still enthusiastically chases kick-offs knowing full well he might get smeared all over the turf by the receiver.

- Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Let's chat

  • Barry Smith

    Thanks, interesting read, but sorry I don’t agree with Raymond Ruhle comments. He has missed 18 out of 32 tackles, well over 50%. Really not acceptable at professional level.

    • Sharky

      I was about to say just that!

      • Ivan

        Same here. He is amazing with ball in hand. And definitely doesn’t lack courage but when it comes to defense he leaves much to be desired. His 56% tackle completion rate is especially bad when compared with 76% (Dyantyi), 72% (Ismaiel), 67% (Mapimpi), 72% (Nkosi) who would all be ahead of Rhule in my pecking order.

  • stormramp

    All good and well to pin point the above players but the way i see it its not the players fault. In my book its the coaches fault. Just like SARU they need to identify the talent before employing him. How on earth , and I’m sorry to mark this player, did Rhule come through the ranks because tackling is a schoolboy thing. Who recognised his talents.

    • John Comyn

      I have been impressed with Rhule so far. He has score a few very good tries and has been involved in a few good assists. He owned the top spot for missed tackles and is now 2nd only to Kolisi. The missed tackle stat is a contentious one in that, what constitutes a missed tackle. There should also be a balance between tackles made and those missed. Rhule was shocking last season and while he still misses tackles there have been no “howlers”.

    • Lyndon Holder

      Not wanting to open up a can of worms and a huge debate, but unfortunately this is a result of a quota system that pushes players in based on colour when they are clearly not up to standard. In the same breathe though there are white players that also have weaknesses that should have been corrected in youth age groups

      • Stanley

        Let’s agree that he made SOME team based on his colour. Now explain than how did he end up at Province from Cheetahs as nobody can force a Union to buy a player (of colour). Stop with the race cards each and every time.

        • Ivan

          Thank you! Absolutely agree with you!

  • Lions Fan '82

    Agreed stromramp! Tackling is a priority. He should be working on it at club level or vodacom cup level where he could get a chance to smash a few guys and build some confidence. Only once he’s learnt a few things AND built the confidence, then he can come try against 100kg-110kg wings from Aus & NZ in Super15. Selectors and coaches to blame i feel.

  • Lions Fan '82

    Enjoyed the article, also think Esterhuizen has been great under Robert du Preeze Snr. Not just bashing it up anymore but has become a complete center capable of doing it all! On attack and defence!

    • Barry Smith

      Agreed, though I think he owes a fair bit to Dick Muir. He has always shown good potential but it is only this year under Muir that he has blossomed!

  • Ferdinand

    Raymond Rhule should not be CLOSE to a Springbok jersey. He is an absolute hopeless defender. Although he has been better on attack, the defensive part is still pathetic. Not good enough. We have wingers that marginally defend better (Nkosi falls off tackles, Mapimpi hasn’t really done any better, and one of the main reasons why the Lions have struggled this season is because their backline players cant tackle… again referring to the wings. One good thing for the Lions is that Combrinck is back.

    • Ivan

      Simple statistical analysis proves you wrong. Nkosi (72%) and Mapimpi (67%) have far superior tackle completion rates to Rhule’s (44%). Combrinck missed 3 of his 7 tackles in his only game this season and only completed 58% of his attempted tackles in last seasons SupeRugby.

    • Dr Hoffman

      so the lions have made 2 finals in a row despite their backs not being able to tackle?? What garbage!

  • Gary

    Mmm, if they pick Esterhuisen for the England tests, it might be quite mouth-watering to see him knock over Owen Farrell. Mmm. Having done that, he can exercise his newly acquired distribution skills.

    • Shaldon

      You wish ?he cant even knock over faf de klerk ?
      Rohan can knock them over

      • Mike Stoop

        Rohan has to catch the ball and hold on to it first. Then he needs to make the Lions side as the starting inside centre all the time.

  • Chris Mouton

    I agree with everything above, expect Rhule. What help is it if you can score tries, but cannot tackle? Rhule should never see a Springbok jersey again.

    • Chris Mouton

      *except. Bah, stupid typo!

  • Bob Catlin

    Jankies is good behind a winning pack but very suspect under pressure as both super finals proved.The beast new name for me is “loop en val” he used to make ground now if he makes 3 steps it is a lot. Rule enough already said about his tackling. Botham not quite up to the standard of the present loss and glad to see Esterhuizen maturing

    • Dr Hoffman

      Both SR finals have not proved that at all. The Lions with 14 men out scored a 15 man saders team with EJ leading the charge.

    • Wesley

      At least Jantjies took his team to the finals. One great or bad game does not a Bok flyhalf make. The rest of SA flyhalves are good, but yet to take their team anywhere. I would like to see a Botha and Mostert lock combo. Although they both 5, there will be brunt and skill, not only brunt with Eben on the park just bashing about. Esterhuizen can start on centre, with Rohan on bench for impact. We don’t lose power in the event of subs, where Rohan is best later in the game. Rhule not even on the radar at the moment.

      • Mike Stoop

        Mostert is less than 110 kg. His poor tighthead prop has to work that much harder. Is that perhaps why Dreyer keeps over extending? Botha has a lot of work to do to get past the four incumbent Boks, Schickerling and and the Bulls duo of Snyman and Jenkins. Not to mention his own team mate, Lewies. Nowadays Rohan does not seem to be the Lions No1 inside centre. Why should he be picked for the Boks?

        • Dr Hoffman

          yet the lions have had one of the strongest scrums for the last 3 years??

        • Wesley

          Botha is a natural leader that did well on tour. But after tonite im eating my words. Apologies. Sharks were horrible and Botha should have stepped up… Rohan a good impact player, think thats why Lions use him as such. Still better than all other “incumbents” like DDA etc.

  • Gerhard

    Tackling has been n big problem in SA Rugby our boys can’t tackle.This should have been coached at school level,which shows why we are so far behind the other countries with lack of skills.I have notice this in just about all our teams for many years now and this is something aa coach can teach his players.THis has frustrated the hell out of me,apologies for this but it is frustrating to see this Saturday after Saturday where our players tackle high and it is easy for an opponent to hand off our players in tackles,which not even AShwin Willemse noticed..

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